Wednesday September 19, 2018
Organizations Unite to Address Inadequate Communication Access for Deaf Inmates

For Immediate Release (PDF of press release and letter)

Contact: Talila A. Lewis (HEARD) This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  
Lizzie Sorkin (NAD) This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Tina Maggio (RID) This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

September 8, 2014 – Washington, D.C.– Today, The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. (RID) filed a letter with the Director of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), Colette S. Peters, demanding that ODOC immediately suspend its recruitment and use of inmates to serve as American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters within its Inmate Work Programs.

NAD, HEARD and RID became aware of the recruitment efforts at the correctional facility via a newsletter dated April 15, 2014, from Superintendent R. Angelozzi, through members of the deaf community, interpreters and advocates.

According to Talila A. Lewis, Executive Director of HEARD, “At a minimum, use of prisoners as ‘interpreters’ places deaf prisoners at risk of abuse and exploitation.  This practice raises serious concerns about conflicts of interest, confidentiality and impartiality that necessarily arise in the course of ‘interpreting’ for activities, events, staff-inmate interactions, and educational programs, as outlined in the April 15 newsletter.”

For instance, Lewis shared that one inmate acting as an “interpreter” recently expressed grave concerns about his ability to effectively interpret for a deaf prisoner, but shared that his fear of reprisal from corrections officials at his prison prevented him from disclosing this which resulted in the deaf prisoner not receiving full access to important information.  In other situations, deaf prisoners have been assaulted by prisoners for reporting that inmate interpreters are not qualified.  Yet, other deaf prisoners report being afraid to report unqualified inmate interpreters for fear of the withholding of any interpreter or of retaliation.

“We strongly believe using hearing inmates to interpret for deaf inmates would be devastating to the health, safety, and welfare of deaf inmates in Oregon. Using hearing inmates as ASL interpreters for deaf inmates raises two grave concerns: non-compliance with federal laws and regulations; and placing deaf and hard of hearing inmates at great risk through state-sanctioned, forced reliance on other inmates,” states Howard A. Rosenblum, Chief Executive Officer of the NAD. “None of these concerns or others would arise if a neutral, qualified interpreter is provided pursuant to federal disability rights laws and ODOC’s policy on Effective Communication.”

Inmate interpreters can never be “qualified interpreters” for at least two reasons: acquisition of American Sign Language is a labor-intensive process requiring extensive education, practice, and exposure to the larger deaf community; and the very nature of inmates negates the important element of being able to “impartially” interpret pursuant to federal regulation and ODOC policy. The April 15 newsletter advertisement states, “Inmates will be tested on their knowledge of American Sign Language.” RID has over 40 years of experience in evaluating and certifying interpreters. Additionally, both the NAD and HEARD are intimately familiar with the need for comprehensive training and testing of interpreters. Collectively, we are deeply concerned about the effectiveness of the assessment advertised in this newsletter.

Shane H. Feldman, Executive Director of RID, adds, "Unfortunately, this is not a situation unique to Oregon. There is widespread and systemic denial and underuse of qualified and certified interpreters in correctional facilities across the country. The RID vision - that interpreted interactions between and among individuals who use signed and spoken languages are as rich as direct communication - should not be compromised when an individual is in custody of a correctional facility. All deaf and hard of hearing individuals have a right to qualified and certified interpreters.”

A copy of the letter to Director Peters was sent to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and the Oregon Governor to ask that these government entities also become involved to ensure that communication access is provided to all inmates through the utilization of qualified AND certified interpreters.

Established in 1880, the NAD is the oldest civil rights organization in the United States, and its mission is to preserve, protect and promote the civil, human and linguistic rights of 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people in this country. HEARD is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that works to ensure that deaf people have equal access to the justice system.  HEARD created and maintains the only national database of deaf prisoners, and has volunteers nationwide who conduct deaf prisoner/defendant research, assist deaf prisoners with access concerns, investigate possible wrongful conviction cases, and educate the deaf community about the law and current legal issues, among other things. RID is a national membership organization that plays a leading role in advocating for excellence in the delivery of interpretation and transliteration services between people who use sign language and people who use spoken language.


Timeline to Important Events in Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign

This is a Timeline of Highlights from HEARD’s Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign (now in its third year). 

We have submitted six comments to the FCC & our founder was invited by the FCC to present at two FCC workshops discussing Inmate Callng Services Reform and deaf and disability access to telecommunications in jails and prisons.  In addition, we engaged hundreds of Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDiabled & Hard of Hearing prisoners in direct advocacy, with over 100 comments coming from #DeafInPrison, their family members & their advocates and attorneys. Watch Al Jazeera America's exclusive documentary, "Deaf In Prison," which chronicles the isolation, abuse and neglect experienced by deaf incarceraed individuals who are denied interpreters, communication, information and telecommunications in our jails & prisons.

November 15, 2012 - Pastor Mark Ehrlichmann (current President, then VP) attends rally at the FCC to encourage reasonable, just, fair (and accessible) telephone calls for all prisoners and their loved ones.

November/December 2012 - Talila "TL" Lewis contacts commissioners of various public utility commissions to ask that they include disability access in their draft Prison Telecommunications Reform Proposal to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). 

December 28, 2012 - FCC Issues an Notice requesting public comment  on inmate calling services for prisoners.  One paragraph addressed deaf and disabled prisoners and asked for public comment on this issue.

January 2013 - HEARD creates a signed-captioned video to engage the community in the Deaf Prison Phone Justice Campaign and encourage all members & allies to submit comments to the FCC.  Here is the signed-captioned video to educate and engage the Community: 

March 25, 2013 - HEARD submitted comment to the FCC about the current state of telecommunications injustice in jails and prisons across the nation.  It included comments from 40 prisoners across the nation. HEARD's First Comment: 

March 25, 2013 - In response to HEARD’s call for action to Deaf* prisoners, more than 50 Deaf Prisoners submitted comments on their own.

March 25, 2013 - HEARD submitted comments from 19 Deaf* prisoners at 18 different prisons in addition to our own comments:  

April 24, 2013 - HEARD Sends Certificate of Achievement for Outstanding Advocacy to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Men in California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility. After receiving HEARD's 2013 Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign "Call for Action" in January 2013, the men at this California facility that houses more than 40 deaf men organized and sent more than thirty letters to the Federal Communications Commission!

The men there who have strong English writing skills sent powerful testimonies to the FCC, and they assisted those who struggle with English to put their ASL into English, so they also could share their stories with the FCC. They requested adequate, equal, and affordable accommodations, including Videophones, Captioned Telephones, a working TTY/TDD, & rates that take into account the slow speed of communication via TTY/TDD:

July 10, 2013 - HEARD Founder, Talila “TL” Lewis speaks on FCC Workshop Panel discussing inequity of telecommunications access for Deaf* and signing prisoners and their loved ones. Archived live stream of workshop here:

August 2, 2013 - FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee passed a resolution recommending the FCC ensure reasonable rates for all prisoners; and accessible, proportionally discounted calls via TTY that allow more time for prisoners who are deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind:

August 9, 2013 - FCC adopts an order that brings an end to excessive telephone rates but does not address serious and sweeping accessibility concerns raised by HEARD related to the absence of videophone (and other) technology in all but one handful of prisons in this nation. HEARD Press Release states that "HEARD’s Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign will not end until deaf prisoners and their families have equal access to telecommunication in prison.":

September 26, 2013 - The FCC released the Inmate Calling Services Report and Order and Notice requesting yet more comments on this issue with respect to a number of issues including deaf and disabled persons.

November 2013 - HEARD asks the Community & Allies to support our efforts by signing on to a Community Sign-On Letter which stated in part:

"Simply put, family members of deaf prisoners have endured an even greater financial burden and often have been entirely denied communication with their loved ones solely based on disability. The Commission emphasizes that its recent efforts are to ensure that 'rates for Inmate Calling Services are just, reasonable, and fair.' While we applaud the Commission's decision to ensure that rates are just and reasonable, we remind the Commission that there is no fairness without equality."

ASL vlog:

December 13, 2013 - HEARD submitted a Community Sign-On Letter with more than  700 signatures (100+ signatures were from law firms & nonprofit orgs) in support of Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice.  HEARD’s founder wrote this among other things: 

“Simply put, family members of deaf prisoners have endured an even greater financial burden and often have been entirely denied communication with their loved ones solely based on disability. The Commission emphasizes that its recent efforts are to ensure that ‘rates for Inmate Calling Services are just, reasonable, and fair.’ While we applaud the Commission’s decision to ensure that rates are just and reasonable, we remind the Commission that there is no fairness without equality.”  Community Sign-On Letter: 

December 20, 2013 - HEARD and Deaf* Prisoners submitted even more comments saying exactly what we siad eight months before—that there is no justice, no access: 

January 13, 2014 - Just to be sure that we were clear, HEARD submitted these comments to reiterate that there is an ongoing crisis of systemic abuse of and discrimination against deaf prisoners and that justice demands that #DeafInPrison receive EQUAL access to telecommunications 

July 9, 2014 - HEARD’s Founder, Talila "TL" Lewis, speaks at the FCC about issues important to Deaf* and disabled detainees and prisoners at the FCC's Reforming Inmate Calling Services Workshop on Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

Captioned video of the day's workshops can be watched here. (Watch TL's speech in ASL here).

January 12, 2015 - HEARD submits yet another comment after conducting an extensive survey on current telecommunications usage wthin the DDBDDHH community & a separate experiment testing the length of time it took for college-educated Deaf students to operate a TTY(some of the phone companies argued that TTY use was not exceptionally longer and so rate should not be further discounted for calls using TTY technology). The survey found that of the first five hundred individuals surveyed—more than 70% of whom have university and post-graduate degrees—84% report that they never use a TTY; 7% reporting that they use a TTYs just once per year; 3% report using a TTY once per month, with 3.6% reporting daily use of a TTY. Our experiement with university-educated students who used a TTY machine yeielded results that indicate that calls take far longer than 4x the rate of voice calls. 

September 30, 2015 - FCC Releases its proposal for its upcoming order which will cap rates for telephone calls. The historic order will not mandate ICS companies/prisons to provide videophones or outher auxliary aids that enure equal access to telecomm for deaf or disabled prisoners. Instead the order will "remind correctional institions of their obligations to make TRS available to people with communication disabilities," and "encourage jails and prisons to allow commonly used forms of TRS . . ." 

Again, we applaud the FCC's action to remedy injustices regarding rates but remind the Commission that tens of thousands in jail and prisons can not access telecommunications at all.  Action is needed to remedy the injustice of lack of access to telecommunications if this decision is to carry weight within disability communities who are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration.

The vote on this order is open to the public & will take place at the FCC on October 22, 2015. We encourage the community to attend and applaud the action taken to decrease rates but to remind the FCC that there is no justice without equality. 

Our next public meeting will be in Washington, D.C., on October 14, 2015.  We will be discussing actions we are planning in this effort.  Please join us. 

Timeline to Important Events in Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign
FCC Speech Translated into ASL

On July 10, 2014, HEARD Founder spoke at the Federal Communications Commission Workshop on Further Reform of Inmate Calling Services about the ongoing crisis in our prisons reletad to conditions of confinement for deaf and disabled prisoners.  The FCC posted the video of the workshop, but captions were not always clear and the interpreter was cut out of the video frame.  

HEARD supporter and CDI translated the long version of TL's speech into ASL and we have provided the English speech below to ensure that the information is fully accessible.  


The English version is available below:

First I would like to acknowledge members of the Deaf and Disability Communities who are here today to signal our deep and unwavering commitment to universal access and equality. Humble thanks also to the FCC for hosting this workshop and for inviting me to sit on this esteemed panel.

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HEARD has worked for nearly eight years to locate deaf and deaf-blind men and women housed in prisons across the United States. In which DOC do you think we have found the most deaf and hard of hearing individuals?

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